Paradise found: A history of pineapple, sugar and seeds in Hawaii

NewsHour Weekend’s Tracy Wholf explores the lush history of Hawaii. Kauai has a long agricultural history – from the first Polynesian settlers thousands of years ago bringing taro — a starchy pacific vegetable – to plant, to biotech-companies producing genetically-modified crops today. When Captain James Cook landed on the island in 1778 — little did he know that he had stumbled upon a farmer’s utopia.

The year-round temperate climate and generous rainfall have lured many farmers and farm laborers to Hawaii’s shores. Coffee, pineapple and cattle were first introduced to the islands in the early 19th-century and have been farmed ever since, but it was the sugarcane industry that helped define Hawaii’s past and paved the way for today’s seed companies.

The first sugar plantations were started in the 1830s and at their peak more than 100 years later, were producing one million tons of sugar a year and employing more than 50,000 workers. Many of those workers lived in housing provided by the plantation and sent their children to schools that were also supported by the plantation. Life on the island revolved around the industry.

But producing sugar wasn’t easy. It required tons of fresh water, something hard to come by on Kauai. The delivery of water and the construction of ditches and irrigation strategies were vital to plantation operation.

Over time, foreign competition and high labor costs — coupled with Hawaii’s booming tourism trade — drastically reduced the size of the sugar industry. By the mid-1990s most plantations were closed, leaving a void of barren land and unemployed ag-workers.

But in the background were seed companies — many of which had been operating in Hawaii since the 1960s. And in 1996 those same seed companies were introducing the first genetically modified crops to the market — crops engineered with traits to grow stronger and withstand pests. Their popularity with farmers has grown dramatically ever since.

MARK PHILLIPSON: There’s 100 million acres of corn planted in the United States, about 88 percent of it had traits in it — genetic traits. And there’s about 75 million acres of soybean planted this year in the U.S., and about 95 percent of that had traits in it.

Mark Phillipson is president of the Hawaii Crop Improvement Association, a local trade group that counts many major seed companies as members. After sugar dropped off in the 90s, seed companies slowly started to acquire land, labor and resources to develop the growing demand for genetically modified crops.

Today, seeds are Hawaii’s most valuable agricultural product, contributing $240 million to the Hawaiian economy and providing jobs to hundreds here in Kauai…including many former sugarcane workers.

MEGAN THOMPSON: So, all the corn and soybeans that we see growing in the Midwest in the United States, where do those seeds come from? They come through here?

MARK PHILLIPSON: They do. They come through here. Almost 100% of the (wind) corn actually, almost 100 percent comes and touches one of its cycles here, in Hawaii.

Watch the full report on the battle over GMO seeds on Kauai.

Funding for this story provided by Pacific Islanders in Communications.